What music reveals about our minds

What music reveals about our minds

Listening to a favorite, familiar, or “disgusting” song can instantly transport you to another moment in your life, bringing back details with startling clarity. And it’s not just a fancy feeling—there’s a science behind how our minds associate music with memory.

There has long been a beneficial relationship between music and patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Repeated listening to personally meaningful music has been found to improve brain adaptability in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment.

Listening to music with special meaning stimulates neural pathways in the brain that help them maintain higher levels of functioning, according to Michael Taut, who is the senior author of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto. It was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in November.

These songs had a unique meaning, similar to the music people danced to at their wedding, and led to increased memory in tests. The findings could support the inclusion of music therapy in the treatment of cognitively impaired patients in the future.

The changes are most noticeable in the prefrontal cortex, known as the control center of the brain, where decision-making, moderation of social behavior, expression of personality and planning of complex mental behavior take place.

When patients heard music that was personal to them, it triggered a musical neural network connecting different regions of the brain, based on MRIs taken of the patients before and after listening to the music. This is different from when they hear new, unfamiliar music, which only activates a certain part of the brain tuned to listen.

There were only 14 participants in the study, including six musicians, and they listened to specially selected playlists for one hour a day for three weeks. But these participants were the same from an earlier study that identified the neural mechanisms for preserving music-related memories in those experiencing early cognitive decline.

“Whether you’ve been a musician all your life or even if you’ve never played an instrument, music is the key to accessing your memory, your prefrontal cortex,” said Taut, who is director of the University of Toronto’s Music and Health Sciences Research Laboratory and professor in the Faculty of Music and Faculty of Medicine, in a statement. He also holds the first Canadian Research Chair in Music, Neuroscience and Health. “It’s simple – keep listening to the music you’ve loved all your life. Your favorite songs of all time, those pieces that are especially important to you – make this your brain exercise.”

The research is a promising start that could lead to broader music therapy applications.

It also highlights another connection: music and our personalities.

Like-minded music fans

Music is connected to our desire to communicate, tell stories and share values ​​with one another and has deep roots in early human cultures.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that as humans we’ve developed connections and bonds with certain genres or styles of music as a way to express ourselves and radiate our personalities.

A recent study spanning six continents with more than 350,000 participants showed that personality types are associated with certain musical preferences.

It's your brain on music
In the study, people from more than 50 countries self-reported their enjoyment of 23 different genres of music while completing a personality questionnaire. The second assessment had participants listen to short music videos from 16 different genres and subgenres of Western music and rate them. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in February.

Music falls into five main stylistic categories. “Mellow” is associated with soft rock, R&B and adult contemporary music, including romantic lyrics and slow beats, while “intense” is louder, more aggressive music such as punk, classic rock, heavy metal and power pop. The other categories included “contemporary” (upbeat electronica, rap, Latin and Euro-pop), “sophisticated” (classical, opera, jazz) and “unpretentious” (relaxing or country music genres).

The findings revealed direct relationships between extroverts and contemporary music, conscientiousness and unpretentious music, agreeableness and soft or unpretentious music. Openness was associated with soft, intense, sophisticated and contemporary music.

This means songs like Ed Sheeran’s “Shivers” appeal to extroverts, while introverts would enjoy listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Open-minded people, meanwhile, tend to enjoy Nina Simone or David Bowie’s classic Space Oddity. And all of these types of songs have an appeal that crosses national borders, according to the survey.

How music can change the way you feel and act

“We were surprised by how precisely these patterns between music and personality are replicated around the world,” study author David Greenberg, an emeritus research fellow at the University of Cambridge and a postdoctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University, said in a statement.

“People may be separated by geography, language and culture, but if an introvert in one part of the world likes the same music as an introvert elsewhere, it suggests that music can be a very powerful bridge.” Music helps people understand each other and find common ground.”

These were all positive associations, but they also found a negative association between conscientiousness and intense music.

“We thought that neuroticism would probably go one of two ways, either preferring sad music to express their loneliness or preferring upbeat music to change their mood.” In fact, on average, they seem to prefer more intense musical styles, perhaps reflecting internal anger and frustration,” Greenberg said.

“It was surprising, but people use music in different ways – some may use it for catharsis, others to change their mood. We will look into this further.”

Researchers acknowledge that musical taste is not set in stone and can change. But the study provides a basis for understanding how music can cut across other social divides and bring people together, Greenberg said.

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